HC Deb 15 January 1987 vol 108 cc419-28

4.7 pm

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I ask the Leader of the House to tell us the business for next week?

The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

Yes, Sir. The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 19 JANUARY—Progress on remaining stages of the Local Government Finance Bill.

TUESDAY 20 JANUARY—Opposition Day (5th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion entitled "The Divided Nation—Failure of the Government's Economic Policies".

Debate on a motion on EC documents relating to broadcasting. Details will be given in the Official Report.

WEDNESDAY 21 JANUARY—Completion of remaining stages of the Local Government Finance Bill.

THURSDAY 22 JANUARY—There will be a debate on the Royal Air Force on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 23 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 26 JANUARY—Opposition Day (6th Allotted Day). There will be debate on an Opposition motion, the subject for debate to be announced.

[Tuesday 20 January

Relevant European Documents

  1. (a) 8227/84 A Common Market for Broadcasting
  2. (b) 6739/86 Proposed harmonisation of Member States' Legislation affecting broadcasting
Relevant reports of European Legislation Committee
  1. (a) HC 5-iv (1984–85), para 3
  2. (b) HC 21-xxiv (1985–86), para 2]

Mr. Kinnock

Following the most recent exchanges in the House, will the right hon. Gentleman not accept that national trading and industrial interests are not best served by conglomerates gobbling up productive and technologically progressive British companies, and that the matter is a fitting one for reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission? It is, in any event, a suitable subject for debate, and I wonder whether the Leader of the House could give an undertaking now that the Government will shortly provide time for consideration of this and related issues?

As the right hon. Gentleman has just announced, the House will give two days next week to the remaining stages of the Local Government Finance Bill, which is obviously very complex, which will provide further dictatorial powers for the Government, breaks promises about rights and safeguards given by previous Ministers and which seeks to set the Secretary of State above the normal process of the law. All that surely justifies proper provision for discussion in Committee, not the indecent and inefficient haste with which the Government are trying to shove the Bill through the House. Will the Leader of the House at least give an undertaking now that further days in future weeks will be given to this Bill so that some semblance of proper consideration can be given to the complex matters within it?

We note that next week time will be made available for a debate on the Royal Air Force. Will the Leader of the House give an indication of when we may expect a debate on the Royal Navy, especially in view of the considerable concern about the implications for defence of the continuing reduction of the British merchant fleet which has occasioned much comment in the House and elsewhere?

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that yesterday the Minister for Social Security and the Disabled rightly advised that in these savage and unprecedented winter conditions people should keep their heating on and keep warm? Is the Leader of the House aware that if they are to take that advice in practice, the poorest people must have their fear of big bills removed? Will he make provision for a Government statement next week to give assurances that they will obtain from the gas and electricity boards a guarantee that poor people, such as pensioners, who keep their heating on in these severe conditions, and who have difficulty in paying their bills for the current quarter, will not be disconnected as a consequence of their difficulty in meeting the cost for weeks like this?

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The information is already available.

Mr. Kinnock

No, it is not, you ignoramus. I was not referring to you, Mr. Speaker, but to the ignoramus on the Government side.

On a related matter, while we welcome the Government's recently announced support for charities which are helping the homeless, will the Leader of the House now provide time for an urgent debate on the general plight of the homeless, both in the current arctic conditions and in less inclement weather, and on the provision that is necessary to help them?

Finally, on this week's business, since we have the opportunity, there are strong indications that the payroll vote will be called out tomorrow to try to defeat the Bill being put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), which is intended to provide help for pensioners who are having difficulty in meeting their licence fee. Can the right hon. Gentleman, whom we recognise to be truly a right honourable man, give an undertaking that he will make all efforts to discourage the mobilisation of the Government's official forces against a private Member's Bill?

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Last point first, please.

Mr. Biffen

Of the six points that were put to me by the Leader of the Opposition, I shall happily take the last one first. Of course, I note what he says about tomorrow's voting arrangements. He alerts me of arrangements which I have no doubt may have existed in a complex fashion over many years. I dare say those who study the Crossman diaries can get the most authentic exhibition of their working. What has been said will have been heard, and tomorrow we shall see.

As to the fifth point, the matter concerning the homeless, that can be considered through the usual channels. The right hon. Gentleman also sought a statement on the policy of gas and electricity authorities in respect of disconnection for those who will have incurred extra high payments during recent days. I shall refer his anxiety that there should be a statement on the point.

Of course, I understand his concern that we should have a debate reasonably soon upon the Royal Navy. Perhaps more than any other of the service debates it would enable one to consider the nuclear question of British forces. I think I can assure him that a day will be available fairly soon.

Perhaps experience of next week will show us that the Local Government Finance Bill is a wise and constructive piece of action on the part of my right hon. Friend, which will rescue local authorities from what would otherwise have been an embarrassing situation. I hope that my generosity will prove more valid than the right hon. Gentleman's gloom-laden analysis of the future of that legislation. May I say once again that, through the usual channels, we can reconcile any anxieties on that point.

On the matter that he raised initially about monopolies and mergers within British industry and commerce, that will clearly be covered by the debate next Tuesday but I understand that he is anxious about it in a wider context. Again, perhaps that is something that we could consider through the usual channels.

Sir Edward du Cann (Taunton)

Since we are in the season of debates about the armed services of the Crown, will my right hon. Friend consider allocating a day for a discussion about what is often called the fourth arm of our national defence, the Merchant Navy? There is great anxiety in all quarters of the House, from the point of view both of defence and of the economy, about the proportion of it that is owned and registered in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Biffen

My right hon. Friend, with great authority, makes a point on the Merchant Navy. He will have heard the Leader of the Opposition suggest that the debate on the Royal Navy was important precisely because it could embrace those considerations. I shall certainly take that into account.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

When does the Leader of the House intend to announce the date of the Budget?

Secondly, will he note that the answers that the Prime Minister gave to me on Tuesday and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) today about empty houses in London being an answer to the problem of the homeless require further investigation by Ministers to establish the legislative and administrative barriers against their being occupied? What is needed from the Government, in addition to the welcome funds, is the release of heated public buildings to deal with the immediate crisis.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Steel

Perhaps we could start with county hall across the way.

Mr. Biffen

I note the alliance that has already been picked up by the right hon. Gentleman on this point. I am sure that he is now seeking to ditch the alliance, but we all understand his difficulties. Of course, I shall see that the points made by the right hon. Gentleman are related to the relevant Members of the Treasury Bench.

As to the first point, I am not in a position to make an announcement this afternoon but I appreciate that there is concern that the date is known as soon as possible.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Ignoramus or not, it is my understanding that gas and electricity boards have already given an assurance that they will not disconnect the supplies to pensioners between November and March.

Irrespective of the response from the Leader of the Opposition, may I support him in making a call to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for a debate at an early date on the takeover mania that has seized the country? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that the decision now lay with the shareholders. Bearing in mind that institutions in the City, sadly, are major shareholders, and that their perspective is the short term rather than the long term, the sooner we discuss the best interests of the country and of manufacturing industry, the better.

Mr. Biffen

Of course, I take account of my hon. Friend's anxiety that there should be a debate upon monopolies and mergers. For myself, I would be happy to be called a Tory ignoramus. I would be fearful if I were called a Tory intellectual.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

In regard to the request by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and by the Tory ignoramus, for an early debate on mergers, does the Leader of the House agree that there is even more urgency following the pusillanimous and lamentable display of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in relation to Pilkingtons, which is a world leader in its industry? Does he not agree that there is urgency, as we cannot afford to lose firms that are world leaders, because we have not got many of them?

Mr. Biffen

I strongly repudiate the hon. Gentleman's description of my right hon. Friend. I believe that my right hon. Friend set out to the House the framework which governed his decision in a way that was courageous and helpful in the consideration of the argument. As to the wider request for a debate upon monopolies and mergers, I take note of it.

Sir Ian Lloyd (Havant)

May I first reassure my right hon. Friend that in respect of the House his intellect competes only with his wit? He will know that within the last three or four years the Select Committee on Science and Technology in another place produced a most important report, as a result of which there is now an annual report to Parliament on civil research and development. He will also be aware that within the past two days that same Committee has published a most disturbing report on civil research and development in the United Kingdom in which it called for enlarged understanding and attached importance to the whole question of science and technology at all levels of Government. As one of those levels is undoubtedly this House, may we have an early opportunity to discuss an office of technology assessment? Could not that best be debated in the context of a general debate on the annual report to Parliament?

Mr. Biffen

I will most certainly consider that point.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

The Leader of the House will have seen early-day motion No. 162.

[That this House congratulates The International Liaison Committee for the Peaceful and Independent Reunification of Korea in organising the International Conference in Pyongyang for the declaration of the Korean peninsula as a nuclear free peace zone; notes that the basing of 40,000 United States troops and the deployment of nuclear missiles on Korean soil is a major obstacle for peace talks in the area; calls for the withdrawal of all American troops and nuclear missiles; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to support the campaign for the de-nuclearisation and peaceful re-unification of the Korean peninsular.]

and early-day motion No. 163:

[That this House deplores the further repression of human rights in South Korea by the arrest of 1,400 students at Konguk University, the invasion of the University Campus by 7,000 members of the military and police forces and the wounding of 70 people, many of them mysteriously; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to protest at this violation of freedom to the South Korean Government and to seek the release of Mr. Kim Dae Jung, the leader of the democratic opposition.]

As the Government support both these motions in principle and Her Majesty's warships have recently visited South Korea, is that not an example of double standards? Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence on that issue?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman might be prepared to try his hand at Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions next week.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)

My right hon. Friend will have heard me refer before to early-day motion No. 310, which refers to small dairy farms.

[That this House believes that should a reduction in milk quotas be necessary, the first 200,000 litres of a United Kingdom holding should not be included in any calculations, thus helping to ensure the future of the small family farms which have done so much for the British countryside.]

Can he give some idea when the final decision will be made on the dairy inspection charges? When will we get an opportunity to debate them in the House?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot provide the information that my hon. Friend understandably seeks. However, I shall contact my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to see whether he can be more forthcoming.

Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

In view of the massive concern about the Government's policy on the care of mentally ill and mentally handicapped patients in the community and in view of the fact that the Select Committee on Social Services report was presented a year ago, will he provide time for a debate on the report at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Biffen

I will certainly consider that matter and how that can be considered in the context of the Government's response to the report and decide whether there is time available for such a debate.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Will my right hon. Friend give priority to the introduction of the resolution on short speeches from Back Benchers because that would be a great benefit? Will he do that at an early opportunity so that it can be quickly promulgated, with or without the amendment?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend will have noted that the motion to provide for that now stands on the Order Paper. It has been amended and I hope that a debate can take place quite soon.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Has the Leader of the House read the report of the Select Committee on Members' Interests which deals with the declaraition—or, rather, lack of a declaration—of interests by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell)? Can we not have a debate on the matter so that the House can take a decision and secure the fullest possible enforcement of the register?

Mr. Biffen

I have only just received a copy of the report. I shall study it and consider how it will stand with the other matters that compete for the attention of the House.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

We all know how concerned my right hon. Friend is for the welfare of all right hon. and hon. Members of the House. The House is becoming increasingly concerned about the Leader of the Opposition, not only indulging in a punch-up outside a Pakistani chippy in Ealing, but seeking yesterday to mug my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security arid the Disabled. I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is subject to much greater pressures and provocations. Perhaps he has some advice or assistance for the——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Is the hon. Gentleman asking for a debate on this matter?

Mr. Marlow

Perhaps we could have a debate on this matter and my right hon. Friend could then give his views in much greater detail than he can now.

Mr. Biffen

I have a kind of institutional affection for the Leader of the Opposition and he and I are both great admirers of Aneurin Bevan. I remember Aneurin Bevan once describing Hugh Gaitskell as a "desiccated calculating machine." I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition is anxious to persuade us that he is not in that tradition.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement next week on the outcome of the discussions in the United States of America between British and Argentine officials on the future of the Falklands?

Mr. Biffen

I will most certainly convey the request for such a statement to my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Darlington)

In view of the postponement of this week's Opposition debate on the so-called north-south divide, will my right hon. Friend consider whether there should be some minimum period of notice beyond which the subject for an Opposition day ought not to be changed?

Mr. Biffen

Clearly, that is a factor for consideration. However, I thought that we did rather well out of that one.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Leader of the House aware that on Tuesday, during Social Service questions. the Minister's announcement on cold weather payments resulted in a kind of change of legislation? In view of the fact that it may not be as clear each week whether the minus 1.5 deg C point will be reached for the whole week, will it not be necessary—in light of the precedent that has been set by the Minister of State—for a weekly statement to be made by the Government, preferably on a Monday, to tell the House exactly what will happen in respect of weather payments? If not, it means that what happened last week was a farce. It means that legislation has been disrupted for only one occasion when it was uncomfortable for the Prime Minister and the Government.

Can we have an assurance from the Leader of House that a Minister will make a statement on weather payments, one way or the other, every week so that the House can be clear, and that the precedent will be proceeded with?

Mr. Biffen


Mr. Winnick

Is the Leader of the House aware that the answer that he gave to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition is bound to confirm the strong impression that Ministers have been told to be present tomorrow to destroy my Bill? Is he further aware that such a manoeuvre is deeply offensive to many pensioners on low incomes who believe that the rights and wrongs of my Bill should be debated? They see no reason why Cabinet Ministers on very large salaries should be told to come here and destroy the measure.

Mr. Biffen

The very nature of the hon. Gentleman's remarks persuades me that there is nothing that I can say that would change his mind.

Mr. John Heddle (Mid-Staffordshire)

In the light of the publication yesterday by the Law Commission about the possibilities of eradicating gazumping, does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an obnoxious practice and that a debate, if not next week, then at the soonest possible opportunity, on the Law Commissioners' report would be greatly welcomed by many first-time buyers?

Mr. Biffen

I understand the importance that my hon. Friend attaches to this topic and that feeling is widely shared in the House. I cannot guarantee that there will be Government time available in the near future for such a debate. Perhaps he might consider trying to raise the matter on the Adjournment.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

In view of the Government's delayed identification or recognition of the north-south divide, and in spite of whatever economic debates take place in the House next week, will the Leader of the House make room for a debate on that question, which has been highlighted again today by the decision taken in the House with regard to Pilkington?

Mr. Biffen

The Leader of the Opposition has underlined the significance of a debate upon merger and monopoly policy more generally and that has been echoed in all parts of the House, including the Conservative Benches. I will add the voice of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden), to those voices.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

As we have all suffered yet another petrol price rise, does my right hon. Friend think that the time is now right to have an urgent debate on what is obviously price collusion and a price cartel operated by the petrol companies? Does he accept that there is a need for the matter to be referred to the Office of Fair Trading? We cannot shop around if the prices that all the petrol companies are charging are the same.

Mr. Biffen

I shall refer the anxieties expressed by my hon. Friend to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion No. 434?

[That this House urges the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to refer the BTR bid for Pilkingtons to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.]

That early-day motion has ben signed by 76 hon. and right hon. Members from all parts of the House. As hon. Members have expressed strong views about the bid, will the Leader of the House make time available in the next fortnight for a debate about the principles involved in the bid so that all hon. Members can make their feelings plain to the shareholders of Pilkington and say what they think that they should do about the BTR bid?

Mr. Biffen

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said and his point is very much on the lines of the question originally put by his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. I will take account of the depth of feeling that exists on this matter.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

In view of the number of references to self-regulation, can my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on that subject and, in doing so, will he invite the Leader of the Opposition to lead off the debate, giving examples from his personal capacity for self-regulation, including on the pavement outside Indian restaurants and his recent behaviour in the House?

Mr. Biffen

Some topics have such a durability that I shall be dealing with them as we approach the months of Heaven knows what towards the end of the year. I take note of what my hon. Friend says.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Ignoring all the ignorami, can the Leader of the House, at a time when we are considering the plight of the elderly, consider the plight of those men who are not quite so old but who are suffering unnecessarily because they are not permitted voluntarily to retire at the age of 60? Are we to have a debate on this extraordinary anomaly of our system which forces men to remain in jobs when they are desperate to retire, while so many of our constituents are desperate for the jobs that they are occupying?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. and learned Gentleman raises a matter that has great economic and social implications. I cannot guarantee Government time to debate it soon, but the House would enjoy listening to the hon. and learned Gentleman in an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the refusal of the Department of Trade and Industry to refer the takeover of the Ault and Wiborg paint factory in my constituency by Berger, where 220 jobs are involved? Will he accept that it is important to have a debate on competition policy? Failing that, could we have an early statement about the Government's position on competition policy as a result of their current review?

Mr. Biffen

I can understand my hon. Friend's anxiety, particularly in the light of his zealous concern for his constituency interest. I shall see what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry knows of that anxiety.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does the Leader of the House recall that, shortly before Christmas, in a series of business questions, I asked for a debate on the prison system, and he showed some sympathy with my point of view? Since then, we have had yet another riot in a Scottish prison. Have not imprisonment and the terms and conditions in prison, both in Scotland and in England and Wales, become a matter of public concern? Should not the House debate the subject soon?

Mr. Biffen

I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman, which I manifested before Christmas. My sympathy grows, but the prospect of a debate in Government time tends to diminish as we go through this time of the year. I shall refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

Given that the official Opposition are being granted their second Supply day debate in seven days, and that we are debating the RAF next week, and bearing in mind my right hon. Friend's well-known charitable disposition, would it not be fair to grant the alliance a Supply day so that we can debate its defence policies and give it an opportunity to climb out of the trough demonstrated in an ITN poll, which shows them winning not a single Conservative seat seven years into a Conservative Government?

Mr. Biffen

I note my hon. Friend's interest that the alliance parties should have more formal political time than at present, and as he is in a position to monitor how effective that is in reducing their impact, I shall be guided by him.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

My right hon. Friend is aware, as all of us are, that this week bureaucracy has been beaten by ministerial action. Can he bring forward a debate so that we can see how the workings of the DHSS in the applications for mobility and attendance allowances could be eased in the same way, so that those who are ill and sick, whose letters fill our postbags regularly, do not have to wait the average length of time, between nine months and one year, between application, medical examination, adjudication and result?

Mr. Biffen

I suspect that my postbag is not dissimilar from that of my hon. Friend, so I can understand what motivates his point. I shall refer this matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Mr. Derek Spencer (Leicester, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Labour councils are using town halls as political headquarters from which they are already waging the next general election campaign, using ratepayers' money? Can we have another local government Bill quickly to outlaw this practice once and for all?

Mr. Biffen

If all that is implied by my hon. and learned Friend is true, there is not much value for money in the context of current political fortunes, but I shall consider carefully what he says and refer it to the relevant Minister.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to read early-day motions Nos. 400 and 414?

[That this House notes that the United States Government intends to impose a punitive 200 per cent. tariff increase to kill Beefeater, Tanquaray and Bombay gin exports to the United States whilst also threatening many hundreds of United Kingdom jobs; notes that the origins of the dispute with the European Community are with grain and other agricultural products; and calls upon all Governments involved to solve this dispute within the framework of the General Agreement on Tariffs and not destroy three famous British export brands which United States citizens wish to purchase.]

[That this House expresses its deep concern at the proposal from the United States administration to impose a 200 per cent. increase in duty on a number of products imported from the European Economic Community; fears in particular that this would have an adverse impact on exports from the United Kingdom of Tanqueray and Beefeater gin; believes that the consequences on price, export levels, and employment would be severe; and urges Her Majesty's Government to do everything in its power to ensure a reconsideration by the United States within the next three weeks.]

These draw attention to the threat posed to the British gin industry by the United States Government, which proposes to put a 200 per cent. increase in tariff on imported gin if the EEC does not make concessions to the United States grain industry. Will my right hon. Friend give time for an urgent debate on this matter, which poses such a serious threat to important British exporters?

Mr. Biffen

The Treasury Bench would immediately be at one with my hon. Friend in being anxious not merely about gin but about the wider issue of a trade war between north America and western Europe. I shall refer my hon. Friend's remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, but again this could feature as an Adjournment debate.